The Nature of Evil

I don’t believe in evil.

In my worldview, there is a force (one could call it “God”) pulling us towards love, compassion, and connection. In each moment each of us has the choice to either follow that pull or move away from it. The choices before us in each moment are dictated by every individual moment that came before. If we—or those around us—make a series of choices against that pull, our next moment may contain choices that seem barely loving at best.

For the vast majority of us, the decisions that came in the moments before do not lead us to walk into a school—or a mall or a movie theater or a political speech—and face the choice of whether to use the firearms we’ve brought with us or not, but even that moment of decision is the product of an infinite number of moments that came before.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday was tragic. It was incomprehensible. It was abhorrent to all feelings of love and human compassion. But was it evil? Is mental illness evil? Is owning a gun evil? Is suicide evil? Is killing another person evil? Is suicide or killing another person evil if it stops more people from dying, or in that moment could it be the most loving choice in the end of a series of very, very unloving choices? If something could be evil in one instance and loving in another, does it serve a purpose to label something either?

It seems to me, to call the murders evil is to dismiss them as something that just happened without hundreds of thousands of prior causes. To call Adam Lanza evil is to distance ourselves from him as a fellow human being and ignore the reality that a whole series of moments led him to that school Friday morning. We’re good, he’s evil, and there’s the division. It’s simple, but it doesn’t seem to explain things for me.

Trouble is, I can’t explain it without “evil,” either.

How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean not only the children who fell or the teachers who protected their classes when they heard the gunshots or the parents who approached the firehouse hoping that their children would be among those walking out, scared but whole? How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean Adam Lanza, too?

I don’t believe in evil. But I don’t know how to explain this.

6 comments

  1. Ellery Davies · December 17, 2012

    CJ,

    1. You said:
    > Is suicide or killing another person evil if it stops
    > more people from dying, or in that moment could
    > it be the most loving choice in the end of a series
    > of very, very unloving choices? If something
    > could be evil in one instance and loving in
    > another, does it serve a purpose to label
    > something either?

    I think that you know the answer to second question, because you articulately describe the free will of individuals to make choices of good and evil (or at least, evil and abstinence from evil by refraining from the commission of a heinous crime).

    Regarding the first question, one cannot compare a compassion killing to brazen, cold blooded, mass murder. Easing the pain and suffering of a loved one may have gray areas, there may be a dispute of judgment, and there may be complex considerations (for example, if the suffering patient does not have a terminal condition). But helping a loved one die with dignity and freedom from prolonged discomfort at their explicit request cannot be compared to murder. That is why religious scholars point out that the Ten Commandments DO NOT say: “Thou shalt not kill”. Rather, it refers to murder.

    2. You also said:
    > To call the murders evil is to dismiss them as
    > something that just happened without hundreds
    > of thousands of prior causes. To call Adam Lanza
    > evil is to distance ourselves from him as a fellow
    > human being…

    Wow! I don’t see it that way…

    I certainly cannot dispute that there are many causes leading up to a perpetrator’s character and his specific deed (for example, a mass murder). But that doesn’t disprove that individuals can be evil. Of course, they can. We have witnessed a horrible evil and collectively grieved at an enormous loss of life and love and lost potential.

    Perhaps I just need to better understand your point.

    3. Finally, you said:
    >How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean
    > Adam Lanza, too?

    I don’t feel your need to embrace this type of man. The command to “Love thy Neighbor” never meant that we should embrace an abomination–nor even an individual who was pushed over the edge by external factors.

    I am not in a state of hate or blind rage…I suppose that I have some emotions toward this individual. I pity him and I have a lurid need to follow the news, learn whatever he was thinking and plotting, and perhaps understand his motives. But my capacity for empathy and compassion is reserved for the innocent children who had yet to learn hate, for the teachers who tried to save them, for the 1st responders who witnessed a blood bath, and for the friends and relatives who have experienced enormous loss. Their lives have been shattered — perhaps beyond comfort.

    Ever since she was 7 or 8, I afforded my 11 year daughter enormous freedoms. I try to avoid constant supervision and helicoptering. But events like this make me wonder if–5 years from now–an 11 year old youth will ever be able to walk to school, play in a yard, run across a river bank. What if there are so many Adam Lanza’s and Boogeymen that we become prisoners with supervision and GPS as our best friends. I realize most suburban children already live in that world. I don’t like it. What a terrible world that is.

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    • CJ · December 17, 2012

      You refer to “evil and abstinence from evil.” I think that highlights the exact difference in our thinking. I see a world in which the choice is towards love or away from love. There is no evil, just a turning away from love (or perhaps an inability or refusal to see a loving course of action because of personal suffering or established patterns of thought).

      A human being who does something horrible is someone who is himself experiencing great suffering. Defining that person as “evil” affords us neither an opportunity to ease their suffering nor any insight into ourselves as fellow human beings. Moreover, dismissing people like Lanza as “evil” doesn’t help us determine how to prevent this type of tragedy in the future. Feeling compassion for someone doesn’t mean that we let him do heinous things, and it doesn’t mean not calling the things he’s done heinous. It just means continuing to recognize him as a fellow human. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If we don’t love him, if we don’t help him, who will?”

      Just a few years ago, Lanza would have been one of the children at this school. A few years from now, one of these children could grow up to be someone you would call “evil.” But at one past moment, they are all children. We are all children. When does the moment of our deserving compassion end?

      Like

  2. Melanie Meadors · December 16, 2012

    Societal failure. That’s what I call it.

    Like

    • CJ · December 17, 2012

      In what way, Melanie? I know what I would highlight were I to make that case, but I was wondering what stood out for you.

      Like

  3. Paul · December 16, 2012

    We’re all conditioned by genetics and experience; I’m not sure if Lanza can be said to have had a choice. Murder is evil. But are people, even murderers? I think of Angulimala.

    Like

    • CJ · December 17, 2012

      Angulimala is a very apt tale, Paul. I hadn’t read it before. Thank you for mentioning it.

      Like

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